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Sexual harassment investigation finds Rep. Ruben Kihuen violated House code of conduct

Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly
Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez
Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder

A nine-month House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made against Rep. Ruben Kihuen last year has determined that the freshman congressman “made persistent and unwanted advances toward women who were required to work with him” in violation of House rules.

An investigative subcommittee, which was impaneled by the committee in December 2017 to investigate the allegations after they were made public in media reports earlier that month, ultimately found the testimony of the three women who made allegations against Kihuen more compelling than Kihuen’s denials. The committee voted on Thursday to concur with the subcommittee’s findings, reprove Kihuen and make the report public.

Kihuen, who maintains his innocence but decided to forego a re-election bid this year, was contrite in a comment to The Nevada Independent. But he added that there were aspects of the report with which he disagreed.

“After much reflection and introspection, I recognize that regardless of the fact that I never intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable or disrespected, what matters is how my actions were perceived by the women who came forward,” he said in a statement. “It saddens me greatly to think I made any woman feel that way due to my own immaturity and overconfidence. I extend my sincere apologies to each of these women. Though I do not agree with aspects of the Report, I am thankful the Committee afforded everyone an opportunity to be heard and appreciate the Committee’s acknowledgment that I fully cooperated with the investigation.”

Members of the subcommittee said they did not find Kihuen’s rejections of the accusations believable.

“The (subcommittee) did not find Representative Kihuen’s denials on these matters to be credible, especially when considered next to strong documentary and testimonial evidence to the contrary,” the report said. “By contrast, the ISC found Representative Kihuen’s complainants to be credible and forthcoming.”

The subcommittee interviewed 12 witnesses as part of its investigation, including the three women who came forward to the media, Kihuen, corroborating witnesses, members of Kihuen’s campaign and congressional staffs and character witnesses. The report noted, however, that “many other alleged recipients of unwanted advances by Representative Kihuen chose not to participate in the ISC’s inquiry.”

Subcommittee members also reviewed more than 2,700 pages of materials.

Prior to the allegations, Kihuen — who came to the U.S. from Mexico and was undocumented for a time — was seen as a rising star within the Democratic Party with a compelling life story.

But in March, when Kihuen had floated the possibility of running for re-election after initially saying he would leave at the end of his term, many of his Democratic colleagues were skeptical. Most backed former Rep. Steven Horsford, who won Kihuen’s seat in the midterm election. He also has weighed running for the Ward 3 Las Vegas City Council seat next year.

Witness accounts

The House subcommittee determined it had jurisdiction to investigate reports stemming from both Kihuen’s time in Congress and the activities of his successful congressional campaign, but the final report also included the testimony of a woman who worked with Kihuen as a lobbyist during his time in the Nevada Legislature.

Among those interviewed was the employee of a Washington, D.C. firm where Kihuen worked for several hours a day during his time in the House. Her story, first told to The Nevada Independent last December, included flirtatious text messages and an encounter at a fundraiser in which she said Kihuen asked personal questions about where she lived and her relationship status, touched her back and kissed her face.

“The thing that upset me the most is when he said, ‘what do you want to do because I know you can’t want to [do this job] forever’ and I told him that I actually do want to work on the Hill one day and he said ‘Let me help you,’” she told The Independent last year. “He doesn’t know me, he doesn’t know the quality of my work. There’s no reason he would help me other than the fact that he would want something in return so it just sort of — it was upsetting.”

It also includes the previously unreported account of a partner at that D.C. firm, who indicated that Kihuen had asked her if she would consider cheating on her husband. The partner said she had reached out to Kihuen at one point before sexual harassment allegations were publicly reported “to let him know he needed to be careful and that I had heard that he had been communicating with people at my office and he should knock that off.”

Investigators also interviewed people affiliated with Kihuen’s 2016 campaign for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District. The first public allegation against the congressman, reported by BuzzFeed News, indicated that Kihuen made unwanted advances toward a staffer that included putting his hand on her thigh, asking if she would cheat on her boyfriend and suggesting the two get a room together at the Aria casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Also in the report was testimony from a second campaign staffer, who reported that Kihuen would talk about his sex and dating life in front of his staff. The staffers indicated that Kihuen suggested he had slept with a Sports Illustrated model who was upset when he didn’t want a serious relationship and that he described a primary opponent as a “slut” in front of his campaign staff.

The committee also interviewed a lobbyist who worked with Kihuen during his time in the state Senate and who spoke with The Nevada Independent last year, attaching Facebook and text message screenshots as evidence. The lobbyist declined to comment on the report on Friday.

In committee testimony, the lobbyist alleged that Kihuen touched her inappropriately on several occasions, including putting his hand on her thigh while she was out with friends during the 2013 legislative session, playing with her hands and feet under the table during a lunch meeting in fall 2014, pushing her dress up with his hand in the car after that meeting and touching her buttocks while she was visiting his office one day during the 2015 legislative session.

Kihuen also sent dozens of text messages that became “progressively more sexually aggressive” in nature to the Nevada-based lobbyist in 2014 and 2015, including repeated suggestions for her to come over to his house, soliciting a “delicious make out kiss,” sending an unsolicited shirtless photo, asking the color of her panties, and inviting her to come to his hotel room on a rainy day because “nothing like making passionate love with the window open listening to the rain,” according to the report. All of the advances were “consistently and repeatedly” rejected by the lobbyist, the report stated.

In one exchange after Kihuen announced his congressional bid in 2015, he texted the lobbyist to “Come sit on my lap,” “You look fabulous in black,” and “I’m sure you look even better naked.” He later responded, “I apologize...can’t talk to you like this anymore. I’m officially a congressional candidate again.”

The then-state senator also used a “significant” number of emoji, including one of a male emoji, a princess emoji, a video recorder and tape emoji equalling three dollar signs, which she interpreted as a suggestion that they make a sex tape. Kihuen said the emoji were referencing a film tax incentive bill.

The lobbyist told investigators that she didn’t feel she could be more forceful in her denials given his position in the Legislature and that she avoided social events that could have helped with her professional development because of his presence.

At one point, Kihuen texted her “Hahaha! How many times have you told me no 4,456,221 times!”

“I don’t think that he realized it was my job to be nice to him,” she told investigators.

Kihuen described his conversations with the lobbyist to investigators as “completely consensual, completely friendly and flirtatious with each other,” saying that he “did pursue her” and “wanted to get to know her but “thought she was just playing a little bit hard to get.” He said that he didn’t use his position as a member of the Legislature to “pressure or harass her or make any inappropriate request or suggestion” but acknowledged the messages were “inappropriate [and] unbecoming of a State Senator.”

The report said the committee was unable to interview a woman who worked at Kihuen’s condo complex and alleged inappropriate behavior in a published report.

The findings

The subcommittee, in its Thursday report, determined that Kihuen “made repeated unwanted advances, many of an overt sexual nature” and said that it found the women it interviewed to be credible based on both their testimony and supporting evidence. Taken as a whole, the evidence “detailed the very behavior that Representative Kihuen denies to friends, family members and coworkers,” the subcommittee wrote.

The report found that the women’s accounts were bolstered by contemporaneous accounts to their family, friends and co-workers and by the similarities between their stories. Two unrelated women in each case testified to the subcommittee that Kihuen touched their thighs while riding in a car with him, asked them if they have or would ever cheat on a partner, talked to them about their careers while hitting on them and grabbed the back of their thigh or buttocks while alone in an office with him.

“Accordingly, to accept Representative Kihuen’s assertions that the alleged conduct did not occur, the ISC would have to find that the complainants interviewed by the ISC — three women unrelated by time, space, or profession — lied to their family, friends, co-workers, and supervisors on or around the dates that each alleged incident occurred,” the committee wrote. “The ISC found the complainants’ assertions to be more compelling.”

Additionally, two people contacted Kihuen separately before the media accounts published to confront him about his behavior, according to the report. That included the partner at the D.C. firm and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which contacted Kihuen’s campaign about Kihuen making the campaign staffer “uncomfortable.”

Though Kihuen offered two character witnesses from his time serving in the state Senate who told the committee that they had never seen the congressman behave inappropriately toward women, the report noted that those witnesses had no first-hand knowledge of the specific allegations. Two other witnesses who had worked with both the campaign staffer and Kihuen told the subcommittee that they believed the staffer based on their first-hand experience working with both individuals.

The report noted that Kihuen’s “failure to acknowledge his general sexual comments or flirtations further undermined his credibility as to the more central allegations of unwanted advances and inappropriate touching. The ISC found it concerning that Representative Kihuen did not own up to his actions, nor did he appear to appreciate the position in which he put women who were required to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities.”

The report also shed light on Kihuen’s rationale for announcing he would not seek re-election. After several allegations were made public, Kihuen texted one person that he feared more women would speak out if he did not act quickly.

“I’m now afraid that more will come out if I wait too long to announce I won’t seek re-election,” he wrote in a text message on Dec. 14, two days before he made the announcement. “Or that even if I announce no re-election that it will still not be enough for some and they will still come forward. I can’t afford to pay my bills if I resign and will be hard to find a job right away,”

Kihuen told the committee that he wrote the text message because he had dated dozens of women and “you never know if any of them, because we broke up or because it didn’t work out, would come forward but not because there’s anything specific that I was pinpointing to.”

House rule violations

The report found that while Kihuen’s conduct did not rise to the level of sexual harassment, his behavior “did not reflect creditably upon the House, violated the spirit of applicable sexual harassment and gender discrimination laws, and warrants Reproval by the Committee.”

The subcommittee noted that Kihuen is a single and unmarried man “free to pursue romantic relationships” and the majority of women who brought forward allegations against him did not work for him, but said that the women were required to work with Kihuen as part of their job. The report said that, despite Kihuen’s assertions, such actions have been found to violate House rules in the past and do so today.

Specifically, the report found that Kihuen violated clauses one and two of the House’s Code of Official Conduct, which state that members “shall behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House” and “shall adhere to the spirit and the letter of the Rules of the House,” respectively. The subcommittee said that it was finding him in violation of those rules because his advances were toward women who had to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities.

The report noted that while Kihuen may have believed the women he was interacting with were playing “hard to get” he “subjected those women to repeated unwanted advances, made those women feel uncomfortable in their working environment.”

“That power imbalance and Representative Kihuen’s insistence that he did nothing wrong makes the plight of the women who have chosen to speak up more difficult,” the subcommittee wrote.

Members also appeared to do some soul-searching about the climate of Congress in the report, pointing out that witnesses expressed hesitance to speak out and fear of repercussions from those in the political sphere other than Kihuen. Both the House and Senate this year passed bills reforming their respective sexual harassment policies, but have been unable to reconcile differences between the two measures.

“In the course of its investigation, the ISC encountered evidence of a general tolerance of inappropriate behavior in the political arena,” the report said. “While Representative Kihuen is responsible for his own actions, the ISC was left with questions as to whether other entities outside of its jurisdiction could have done more to support the targets of Representative Kihuen’s unwanted advances."

Read the report and supplementing documents below.


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